When considering the legalities of music publishing and the licensing of music for films—especially a film shining an unfavorable light on persons and corporations connected to Kurt Cobain’s estate, a biographically-accurate (and not an inspired-by-events) screenplay about a Generation X’s “Jim Morrison” seems a production impossibility.
The best explanation of this screenplay-to-film improbability of a narrative Cobain career chronicle sets in the work of Oliver Stone, who brought the tale of Jim Morrison and the Doors to the silver screen. When Mr. Stone began developing his football expose, Any Given Sunday, the unfavorable light the screenplay shed on the National Football League led to the organization rebuffing Stone’s request for involvement; Stone dreamed up an ersatz professional football league for the film.
A faux biopic analogous to Rock Star, a film loosely inspired by the career of Judas Priest’s Tim “Ripper” Owens—and not akin to the critically acclaimed box office bonanza biographies of Ray Charles or Johnny Cash—is the only way, it seems, a true Cobain biopic can appear on screen. (His daughter, Frances Bean, has since produced 2015’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, which is considered the most-accurate of the many Cobain-Nirvana chronicles, but it is still a documentary and not a narrative piece.)
Film productions have music consultants who prepare a film’s soundtrack; a film about the life of a controversial musician with an estate controlled by a widow who’s partial to filing lawsuitsand going on expletive-riddled rants on The Howard Stern Show about how everyone (including ex-bandmates) manipulates her ex-husband’s work, opens a plethora of legalities; as such, business entities cast in an unfavorable position are not licensing their music for such a film.
During our first “Rock ‘n’ Roll Week” in July we reviewed Down on Us, the low-budget, exploitive tale on the Doors by Larry Buchanan that experienced similar licensing issues regarding the music of the Doors, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix; Buchanan contracted musicians to forge replicates of those artists for the film. Thus, Oscar nominated and award-winning director Gus Van Sant exceptionally and effectively executed this same approach with Last Days, his faux-Kurt Cobain docudrama concerning actor Michael Pitt’s eerily portrayed pseudo-grunge rocker, Blake, fronting the film’s scripted Nirvana substitute, Pagoda—featuring stunning Nirvana simulations composed by Pitt. (It all goes back to poet William Blake, one of Jim Morrison’s lyrical inspirations. The circle completes.)
As with his previous effort, Elephant, which was a thinly-veiled account of the Columbine tragedy, Van Sant (Good Will Hunting) crafted this faux-bioflick of Cobain’s “last days”; until his take, the only cinematic document on the troubled Nirvana leader was Nick Broomfield’s 1998 pseudo-document Kurt & Courtney (a chronicle, courtesy of Courtney Love’s perpetual legalese, turned what was to be a Cobain tribute into a tale of the sad hanger-ons of Grunge’s Sid & Nancy). It was Sant’s indie-pedigree and Oscar success, in conjunction with the Cobain subject matter, that led to Last Days becoming the debut release for Picturehouse, a joint-shingle between Time Warner, New Line Cinema, and HBO Films (which is why it plays incessantly on that channel) to create domestic art house, independent foreign, and documentary films.
And Last Days is definitely an “art house” film—to the point of being an “independent foreign film,” courtesy of its Felliniesque minimalism; this is Oliver Stone’s The Doors reflecting through a Michelangelo Antonioni transom. So, don’t expect flash; expect dead-pan scripting that concentrates on haunting cinematography and quasi-over-the-head symbolisms.
The narrative dispenses with the usual rise-and-fall tales of Taylor Hackford’s and James Mangold’s respective major-studio bios Ray or Walk the Line—with Michael Pitt (Hedwig and the Angry Itch) as the mythical-rocker, Blake, of grunge superstars Pagoda, living his last days in his Pacific Northwest home. The tale beings with Blake sneaking out of a rehab clinic and taking up residence in a forest with a makeshift, lakeside campfire; he walks around with a shotgun in his house pointing it at his band/roommates; he hangs up on phone-harassing record executives droning about tour date obligations. The story meanders through its entrancing simplicity (e.g., extended scenes of Blake making and eating a bowl of cereal, long, pondering (but beautiful) tracking shots across lawns and through windows, extended, stagnant shots of Blake writing-recording a song) until an electrician discovers Blake’s body in an apartment above the home’s garage.
Fans of Sonic Youth and watchers of the concert document 1991: The Year Punk Broke will notice bassist Kim Gordon in her dramatic acting debut (as a concerned record executive) while her band mate-husband, Thurston Moore (We Jam Econo), supervised the soundtrack (Sonic Youth also scored the French-made Demonlover, along with the Beatles “what if” Backbeat, Heavy, and Made in the USA).
Moore’s supervision assisted Michael Pitt in his crafting two Cobainesque songs for the film: “That Day,” the acoustic “Death to Birth,” along with an extended electric jam, “Fetus.” Lukas Haas (in the “Krist Novoselic” role) composed “Untitled,” while Rodriqo Lopresti (of fellow “Seattle band” The Hermitt) composed “Seen as None” and “Pointless Ride.” The DVD release features an additional song, “Happy Song,” along with a mock video for Blake’s Pagoda, which is a nostalgic return to the Seattle-styled videos that permeated MTV’s airwaves in the 120 Minutes-crazed ’90s. The film also features a soundscape “Doors of Perception” (know your Jim Morrison trivia).
There’s more grunge-era films to be had with our “Exploring: 50 Gen-X Grunge Films of the Alt-Rock ‘90s” featurette.